It was a glorious day for football at Craven Cottage with baking hot sunshine, but the game itself was pretty turgid. The manner of Fulham’s victory was far from pretty but at this stage of the season – with the twin goals of our highest league position and an ever-increasing shot at Europe – results matter more than the performance.
The win was all the more impressive given that we suffered three injuries that seriously disrupted our rythm and could cause concern ahead of the run-in. Bobby Zamora limped off early and his strike partner Andy Johnson was also replaced after going down in a heap in the centre circle. Erik Nevland boosted his reputation as a more than useful substitute by beautifully starting and finishing the move that unlocked a stubborn Stoke defence.
The irony of it all was that the goal came from a Rory Delap throw. Delap’s looping efforts from the touchline weren’t too much of a problem back in December as the Irish international had to abandon his trademark weapon after his first attempt damaged an existing shoulder injury. We had a clear plan to counter the expected aerial bombardment with Hangeland detailed to try and head the ball clear from the edge of the six-yard box.
Unlike at other set-pieces we were also eager to try and threaten the opposition’s defence with our pacy substitute forwards. The throw was quickly cleared and Nevland found himself in space on the halfway line. The Norweigan sped into the Stoke half before releasing Johnson with a lovely slide-rule pass down the right side. Johnson delivered a perfect return ball and Nevland kept a cool head from around eight yards out to tuck the ball into the net.
Stoke weren’t the hoofball side that they’ve been portrayed as because of their reliance on Delap’s long throw. Indeed, he might have put his side in front veryh early on after Fulham’s slack marking was nearly punished at a corner. Liam Lawrence, with a permatan to match Phil Brown’s and some striking highlights, almost curled a stunning equaliser from long range moments after Nevland’s goal. The effort certainly had Schwarzer worried and whistled just wide of the far post.
A beautifully worked set-piece should have led to the vital second just before the half-time whistle. In a move that seemed to be lifted straight off the Motspur Park training ground, Paul Konchesky ran over a free-kick that Danny Murphy then tapped to the onrushing full-back. Konchesky’s low cross should have been turned in by Dickson Etuhu but the Nigerian somehow contrived to miss the target altogether from close range.
Nevland had more than a sniff of a second on the stroke of half time when he raced into the Stoke penalty area to chase down a slack backpass from Abdoulaye Faye. Nevland seemed to be justified in challenging Thomas Sorensen but the referee Lee Mason, who was pretty fussy throughout, booked Nevland for dangerous play.
The second half was pretty sophoric. Stoke seemed happy to sit off and play on the break, trying to snatch an equaliser from the throw-ins and set plays. By the same token, Fulham seemed happy to maintain possession and it was a long time before either side carved out clear cut chances. For Fulham, only a tame Etuhu shot trickled towards Sorensen in the Stoke goal before a late flurry that saw Nevland bravely denied by a brave saving challenge from Ryan Shawcross.
At the other end, Shawcross – with a downward header from a corner that bounched over the crossbar – went closest but Ricardo Fuller and Lawrence also had chances. The former Sunderland midfielder saw his late shot well blocked by Konchesky as the Potters piled forward in search of the point that would probably had made certain of their place in the Premier League next season. Their magnificent home form alone should ensure that Tony Pulis secures survival well before the end of the season.
With defeats for both of our main rivals in terms of a European spot, the path to the Europa League looks a little clearer as we sit in seventh place tonight. Our hopes probably depend on achieving maximum points from our remaining two home games, although with the opponents being Aston Villa and Everton, who are both enjoying excellent seasons, that’s certainly far from straightforward. We could probably do with picking something up at Chelsea next week – even if that’s unlikely – and certainly at Newcastle, who will be battling against the drop until the last.
Nevland’s lovely finish means that it’s all to play for.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky (Baird 82), Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Gera, Dempsey; Zamora (Nevland 20), A. Johsnon (Kamara 35). Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Stoor, Dacourt, Gray.
GOAL: Nevland (29).
STOKE CITY (4-4-2): Sorensen; Kelly (Sonko 83), Pugh (Dickinson 87), Shawcross, Abdoulaye Faye; Whelan, Delap, Lawrence, Etherington; Creswell (Camara 83), Fuller. Subs (not used): Simonsen, Olofinjana, Cort, Tonge.
BOOKED: Lawrence, Shawcross.
REFEREE: Lee Mason (Lancashire).